Essays, Papers & Addresses

Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Morrow, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926

by Charles F. Downs II

Charles Downs is a career archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. He served in the U.S. Air Force and has long had an interest in aviation history. He is currently a volunteer at the College Park (Maryland) Aviation Museum.

Although Calvin Coolidge was the last U.S. President never to have flown in an airplane, he also signed the key piece of legislation that determined the course of Federal regulation of aviation to this day. The Civil Aeronautics Act of 1926, in both its content and enactment, was a triumph of Coolidge’s philosophy of government and his often-overlooked political skill. Coolidge could by no means be called ”air-minded”: he pinned one medal on Charles Lindbergh, but declined to present a second to him, because, as he purportedly said, he didn’t want to make a habit of it. And when Lindbergh offered to take Grace Coolidge up in his plane, she declined, saying that her husband forbade her to fly. But Coolidge was a canny politician, who saw the writing on the wall, or more properly, in the sky.

As the year 1925 started to wane, many people were looking to the sky. Unfortunately, the United States was one of the few nations of the world that had no national civil aviation policy, although not for lack of interest or effort. Several bills had been introduced in Congress, but due to a mixture of indifference, ego, suspicion, and ineptness, none had been enacted. The general public and many politicians were suspicious of the so-called ”aviation trust,“ with the continued investigations into the dismal record of American aircraft production in WW I still an open sore. Those who formed the ”aviation lobby” were disunited and often unable to agree on common action. Aircraft manufacturers were suspicious of each other, and desperate for their share of the paltry aviation market. The still emerging airline industry faced public skepticism, inadequate aircraft, no liability insurance, and a total lack of airport and airway infrastructure. And while the individual states were slow to act, states rights advocates feared federal initiative in aviation regulation would usurp state prerogatives.

There were some signs that the tide was beginning to turn. Better and safer new aircraft designs were entering production, as surpluses of WW I aircraft got used up. More effective lobbying organizations were formed to advance the cause of aviation. Lighter and more powerful aircraft engines, especially new air-cooled models by Curtiss-Wright and Pratt and Whitney, were becoming available. When Henry Ford began to take an interest, first forming an air transport company and then taking over Stout Aircraft Company, which was designing innovative all-metal aircraft, it appeared that aviation might be coming of age. The Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics was established to provide seed money for aeronautical research and development, and the emergence of aeronautical engineering as a viable university curriculum. Finally, the 1925 Kelly Airmail Act was passed to subsidize commercial airmail routes, and it seemed that the potential for profitability by carrying mail and passengers would become reality.

The passage of the Kelly Act made the passage of some kind Federal regulation of aviation inevitable. It drew big business into aviation, and influential investors created companies which would eventually form the backbone of the future airways system. After a protracted struggle, Congress passed the bill because it got the Federal government out of an area of private enterprise, and the potential pork-barrel aspects were eliminated from it. Private contractors got the revenue guarantees they wanted, and aviation would have a chance to prove its worth. And since the Post Office Department was no longer going to be flying the mail, its recently introduced night flying facilities would be available to the new contractors.

Another significant player in this drama was General William ”Billy” Mitchell, a WW I flying hero and an outspoken advocate for an independent air force. Many of his Air Service colleagues shared his goals, but found his methods to be counter-productive. His lack of patience with the hide- and ground-bound Army leadership led him to the brink of insubordination and beyond. When the Navy airship Shenandoah crashed in violent weather and a Navy seaplane went missing on a flight to Hawaii, Mitchell railed against what he termed the criminal neglect of aviation by the Coolidge Administration, blaming these losses on its shortsighted policies. Calling for the passage on new aviation legislation, Mitchell’s remarks were more than usually intemperate and insubordinate. He clearly had gone too far, and Coolidge himself instructed that he be brought up on court martial charges. As he later explained, ”So we had to bring it rather sharply to the attention of men in the service that they ought to obey that regulation of the service which requires that they shouldn’t volunteer to influence legislation . . . .” But Mitchell had allies in Congress who wanted not just an independent military airforce, but a single cabinet department for all aviation activities, both civil and military.

Earlier, In 1924, a House Committee had been formed to investigate the so called aviation trust, the House Select Committee of Inquiry into the Operation of the United States Air Services (the Lampert Committee), chaired by Florian Lampert, head of the House Patents Committee. One of the Committee’s members was none other than Frank L. Reid, a close friend of, and later counsel for, General Mitchell. The Committee was determined to find how much was actually spent on aviation during WW I, including determining what had actually been purchased by these expenditures, and map out the best procurement procedures for the future. Producing 6 volumes of testimony, the committee was said to be strongly leaning toward unification of civil and military aviation under one authority, a vindication of Mitchell’s position. In October 1925, the Committee retired to write its report—which to all appearances had to be damaging to the administration.

In addition to his well-know frugality, President Coolidge was dedicated to positive inaction: the idea that by doing nothing most issues would fade away on their own. However, this time that strategy would not do, as things were getting out of hand, and the Administration was in danger of losing the initiative. Inaction could lead to the passage of unwanted legislation, which from Coolidge’s perspective was not only unnecessary, but also apt to be expensive. Aviation had become a moral issue to Coolidge—and this is what it took to spur him to act. His earlier public equivocation gave way to a statement that the Air Service was a new, untried military arm ”. . . that holds promise, and I consider a very important adjunct to our national defense…I want to see it developed to the fullest.”

In contrast to Coolidge’s initial inertia, one member of his cabinet was active in promoting his own brand of cooperative regulation to aviation. Herbert Hoover was a national figure in his own right, and Coolidge’s style of government gave him a high degree of autonomy. He took an activist approach to government, sometimes taking on too many projects, to the annoyance of many of his colleagues in the Cabinet. Coolidge himself respected but disliked Hoover. In a moment of pique, he characterized Hoover as having done nothing but give him advice, ”all of it bad.” This reflected their different temperaments, but their basic philosophies of limited government were quite compatible.

Aviation looked to Hoover for leadership — he, not quite accurately, called it ”the only industry that favors it be regulated by the government.” Hoover’s potential as a savior of aviation was never fully realized, however. His attempts to educate the public by inundating them with aviation statistics failed to stir people on an emotional level, and his actions did not always support his words, since he rarely appeared at aviation events. His gadfly image worked against him, and his desire to incorporate aviation regulation into the Department of Commerce seemed to some critics as grab for power. When Hoover mishandled the drafting of what could have been key aviation regulatory legislation, he managed to alienate some influential congressmen and discredit himself with aviation’s supporters.

Hoover did raise the public consciousness, and provided a solid basis of sound information that would prove useful later, by initiating the Joint Committee on Civil Aviation in conjunction with the prestigious American Engineering Council. The Committee, made up of highly respected experts, did not present anything new, but consolidated and compiled existing information, laid out aviation’s major problems, proposed solutions, and detailed possible government policy. The Committee’s report drew parallels between the airplane and automobile industries, and emphasized the need to start the legislative process, since, as it noted, ”Perfection cannot and will not be achieved in [any] initial law . . . .”

Coolidge’s ace in the hole, which he now played, was his old friend and Wall Street banker Dwight Morrow, whom he appointed to form a board to investigate the status of aviation in the United States and report back to him. As Coolidge biographer Robert Sobel says of Morrow’s later appointment as ambassador to Mexico, ”It was a typical Cooldige move. Find the right man, tell him what has to be done, then step aside.” A successful banker with J. P Morgan Company, well known and liked in international financial circles, Morrow had known Coolidge since their college days at Amherst. When Coolidge became President, Morrow was rumored to be in line for a cabinet post, but that never materialized, perhaps because Coolidge’s advisors had a problem with appointing a Morgan banker. Instead, the previous March, Coolidge had casually mentioned to Morrow that he had the subject of airplanes in mind for him to look into, but Morrow had no inkling of what was in store for him until he read of his appointment in the newspaper. In accepting his task, Morrow professed to know little about aviation, although he was a member of the Guggenheim Aviation Fund Board of Trustees. Several other notables were appointed to what was officially called the President’s Aircraft Board, but soon almost universally became know as the ”Morrow Board”. The Board consisted of eight Republicans and one Democrat: Major General James G. Harbord, a retired Army Chief of Staff, and current president of RCA; Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher, a retired admiral, and close friend of Adm. William A. Moffet, head of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics; Arthur C. Denison, a Federal judge from Grand Rapids, Michigan; William F. Durand, recently retired from Stanford, a pioneering aeronautical engineer, still active with the National Advisory Committee on Aviation (NACA); Howard Coffin, a consulting engineer, WW I head of the Air Production Board, and deeply involved in the aeronautical industry; Senator Hiram Bingham, former head of Army Air Personnel in WW I, member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, and the Board’s only pilot; Representative Carl Vinson, the lone Democrat, a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee; and Representative James S. Parker, a member of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Given that they were handpicked by the Administration, none of these men were likely to recommend any radical solutions.

No provision was made by the government for a secretary to record the Board’s meetings, apparently because Coolidge believed the members were so well off that they could afford that expense themselves. Consequently, Morrow’s own personal secretary ended up handling these duties. The Board first met on September 27, 1925, and elected Morrow Chairman, Denison as Vice-chair, and Durand as Secretary. In gathering testimony, they called 99 witness, half of whom were fliers, over the course of their public hearings. The Morrow Board went out of its way to solicit individuals’ personal opinions, regardless of that of their superiors, noting that Army discipline was not their concern. They also had access to previous testimony on a bill introduced by Charles Curry proposing a unified Department of the Air, as well as the printed testimony of the rival House Lampert Committee. The Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Postmaster General, as well as their underlings, representatives of NACA, and members of the aeronautical industry made appearances. Even Wilbur Wright testified, and was jokingly chided by Morrow as being responsible for it all. Herbert Hoover gave lengthy and important testimony. However, claims by both his supporters and detractors that he stage-managed the Board are groundless. The most anticipated witness was perhaps the most anti-climatic. Given a free reign by Morrow, General Mitchell testified for two days, largely reading from his published writings. Perhaps distracted by his forthcoming court martial, his performance surprised and disappointed his supporters, and did nothing to help his cause. The wife of Hap Arnold, one of Mitchell’s staunchest supporters, characterized the impact of Mitchell’s appearance: ”You could feel the coldness go through the board. We were just sunk.”

Just over a month after it convened, the Board’s report was published. Morrow had written much of it himself and had pushed hard to get it drafted and into a form that won unanimous approval of the other members.

The Morrow Report was written in a clear and straightforward style. An introductory section described the Board’s task, its methodology, the testimony, and its belief that ”no solution proposed at this time can be lasting.” Part I, the Board posed and answered a six essential questions concerning aviation. Part II provided suggestions to improve the situation of the air service with reference to the Army, the Navy, and the aeronautical industry.

The first of the six questions in Part I concerned the relation between civilian and military aviation, which the Board strongly urged remain separate. There was no need for a separate Department of Aviation, and no need to build up armaments, since in the Board’s opinion: ”Armament beget armaments.” Next was the question of promoting the civil use of aviation. People must recognize the non-military value of aviation, of which the airmail service of the Post Office was a good example. Because of a lack of infrastructure in the U.S., the Board pointed out Europe was ahead of the U.S. in air passenger and cargo traffic. The report identified a number of factors retarding the development of aviation, and recommended the creation of a Bureau of Air Navigation in the Department of Commerce to address them. The third question concerned the military air policy of the U.S. The Board noted that the Navy was sufficient to keep an aerial threat away, and that the military establishment should determine the level necessary for an economical defensive force. The fourth question asked if the U.S. was in danger of air attack from a menacing enemy. The Board’s narrow answer was no, since, using current equipment, only Canada and Mexico were close enough to launch an aerial attack on the 48 States. However, this answer failed to consider threats to U.S. possessions and assets overseas.

The fifth question addressed the establishment of a Department of National Defense. The Board found advantages and disadvantages to such a proposal, but the reduction of duplication such an organization promised would be more than out-weighed by the creation of a complex bureaucracy. ”It is difficult to see how such a super-organization could make for economy in time of peace or efficiency in time of war.” Finally, the last question asked if there should be a separate Department of Air equivalent with the Departments of War and the Navy. Again the answer was no. The Board argued that both the Army and Navy needed integral air arms in order to fulfill their missions, and the air force had yet to demonstrate its value as an independent instrument of war. The British example of an independent RAF was still controversial, and the jury was still out on the concept.

In Part II of its report, the Board addressed the concerns and problems it identified in the Air Service, in naval aviation, and in the aeronautical industry which supplied the services. The Board found it almost impossible to judge the actual or even relative strength of American military aviation, although its actual strength appeared to be less that its authorized strength. Answering criticism of the quality of aircraft used by the Air Service, it noted how quickly technology made machines obsolete, but that obsolete aircraft were not necessarily unsafe aircraft. The Board made a number of suggestions to improve morale and career conditions of Air Service personnel, including a name change to Air Corps, an assistant Secretary of War for the Air Corps, and increased resources, promotion and opportunity for Air Service personnel. Much the same was recommended for the naval air arm, including an Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics. The Board recognized that the aircraft industry was important for national defense. However, aircraft could not be built and stockpiled for future wartime use, since they too quickly become obsolete. Anyway, the United States’ geographical position gave it time to increase aircraft production in stages to meet an emergency, as long as a sound industrial base existed. To encourage such a base, the Board recommended the standardization of aircraft types; regularly scheduled replacement of aircraft types; continuity of equipment orders; orders of reasonable size given to companies with active design staffs; proprietary rights given to companies for their designs; orders for experimental, competitive designs; the rationalization of government procurement laws and regulations, and the continuation; and encouragement of government and private research and innovation.

Timing was everything, and Morrow’s was impeccable. The Board’s report won almost universal praise (or at least grudging respect), it shifted focus from the court-martial of General Mitchell, then in progress, and upstaged the long-awaited Lambert report. While no one expected anything radical from the Morrow Board, it was exactly what the majority of Americans wanted: a sober and conservative review of the status of aviation in the United States, clearly refuting the scare-mongers, but offering sound and sensible suggestions for necessary changes. Calvin Coolidge had good reason to be pleased with it, since it supported his views and philosophy and was exactly what he had intended. He used it successfully in diverting popular momentum into channels conforming to his views while at the same time discrediting the opposition. As he said in a news conference, ”You remember that there was a great deal of confusion about the Air Service last summer. That was my state of mind…. It was very well cleared up I thought by the work of the Board.”

The next hurdle Coolidge faced was getting an aviation bill through Congress, heretofore an impossible task. The House and Senate were ill equipped structurally and psychological to deal with aviation matters. They were unable to form standing committees on aviation, because existing committees covering aspects of it wanted to retain their prerogatives. The Progressive movement’s urge to investigate was still pervasive however—at one time as many as 89 Republican congressional ”smelling” committees were active. With strong insurgents and weak party leadership, Republicans could agree only when it came to rebuking the White House,and Coolidge’s traditional hands-off approach had only worsened the situation.

With the 69th Congress’s increased Republican majority, party regularity was strengthened, as was Coolidge’s position. Coolidge then took what was an unusual step for him: he summoned congressional leaders to the White House and bluntly told them of his support of the Morrow Board’s Report. ”I am anxious to have legislation that carries that out. I am equally desirous of not having legislation that goes beyond the report and recommendations of the Board. I want a good Air Service here, the same as I want a good Army and Navy. But I don’t want to go to extremes about it.” Coolidge went on to express his concern about the unnecessary cost of unneeded expansion of the air service, and emphasized the dangers of ”competitive defense”, which would cause other nations to upgrade their air forces, thereby resulting in an arms race. In evaluating this statement, is important to remember that during his administration Coolidge strongly and consistently supported international arms reduction and limitation agreements.

When the Lampert Committee’s report came out, the 69th Congress felt no real sense of responsibility for it. Overshadowed by the Morrow Board report, it generally supported the latter’s conclusions on civil aviation, and its recommendation to create a unified military establishment carried little weight.

Following up their Report’s favorable reception, members of the Morrow Board quickly introduced bills into Congress designed to turn its recommendations into legislation. Hirham Bingham introduced a bill in the Senate similar to earlier unsuccessful legislation, although some of its key provisions were inspired by the Morrow Board report. It called for the creation of an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Commercial Aviation, with responsibility for coordination of the aviation related activities of existing government agencies, the construction of light and radio beacon facilities, and tasking the Weather Bureau with providing aviation weather reports. The brevity of the bill left it open to amendment, but gave it a better chance of speedy passage. The Bill also avoided controversy by covering only inter-state and international aviation. Called ”common-sense legislation” by the New York Times, it ran into no serious opposition, partly because it was loosely drawn, and partly because of confidence in the manner in which Secretary of Commerce Hoover would implement it. Approved December 14, 1925, it was the first bill passed by the Senate of the 69th Congress.

Getting a bill through the House of Representatives was entirely another matter. Other aviation legislation had successfully navigated the Senate, only to come to grief in the House. Rather than keeping the same language as the Bingham bill, the House bill’s sponsor James Parker produced a complete rewrite. Much of the language in this bill was the work of William MacCracken, an air-minded Chicago lawyer, founder of the National Aeronautic Association, and supporter of strong Federal aviation legislation. While keeping the essentials of the Senate bill, the House version differed in degree by following the Morrow Board report more closely. It extended the Bill’s coverage to all air navigation—including intra-state, added coverage of airports, provided Federal criminal penalties for violators, and gave the new unit the power to issue and suspend pilots and aircraft certificates. The bill that came out of Parker’s Committee had many of the virtues of earlier legislation, and few of the vices: it was clear and comprehensive, without getting bogged down in details. However, some congressmen feared that it gave too much power to the Secretary of Commerce, while the possible costs of airport construction rankled the economy-minded. Others argued that it expropriated a property owner’s rights to the air over his private property. The greatest cause for concern was that MacCracken had included in it Federal regulation of aviation within individual States, a red flag to powerful State Rights advocates. And it had competition from the Curry bill, which had been hurriedly reintroduced by supporters of Billy Mitchell’s vision of a unified Department of Aviation. In the event, the expected opposition never materialized, and after a few humorous jibes at Hoover, the House easily passed the bill on April 12, 1926.

Although the House bill was in many respects similar to the Senate version, there were some key differences that had to be reconciled by a House-Senate conference. To deal with some of the more ticklish matters, the NACA was asked to examine the issues of airport construction and intra-state commerce. It created a sub-committee chaired by former Morrow Board member William F. Durand, which drew a parallel between aviation and Federal involvement in Marine navigation. The sub-committee argued that the Federal government should provide aids to navigation, but the construction of airfields (except emergency fields), like docks and port facilities, should be left to local government. In addition, the subcommittee stated that Congress would never appropriate the vast sums needed for airport construction, and congressional involvement would just stifle local enterprise. The committee argued against Federal control of intra-state aviation on the grounds that it was not necessary for the purpose of promoting national and international air commerce, completely ignoring the danger of mixing unregulated aircraft with those that were regulated. The House-Senate conferees embraced the report, with one revision. While Federal licensing was limited to those involved in inter-state and international aviation, everyone using the airways would be subject to Federal air traffic rules. Other points were clarified in the bill, and, while criminal penalties for violations were dropped, civil penalties were strengthened and enforcement of the regulations made more effective. Both the House and Senate endorsed the compromise bill on May 13, 1926. In the end, largely due to MacCraken’s lobbying, the final bill was stronger and more viable than its congressional creators had envisioned. The most divisive issue was neatly handled by giving the States theoretical rights over intra-state aviation that they never took up in practice.

As was characteristic, President Coolidge said little about the aviation bill, but he must have found it to his liking because he promptly signed it. On May 20, 1926, the Air Commerce Act became Public Law 254. Criticized by the extremists, most hailed it as a great boon to commercial aviation that would enable American business to exploit its unfulfilled promise. True to its intent, it aided a struggling field of enterprise by regularizing its practices and procedures—an example of government helping not restricting people. While it provided Federal regulators sufficient authority, it was brief and permissive enough to suit the fast-growing field of aviation.

The military aspects of the aviation controversy were also settled to the President’s liking. As the Morrow Board had recommended, the Army Air Service was renamed the Army Air Corps, and an Assistant Secretary for Aviation was created in the War Department, and a similar post created in the Navy Department. Many of the problems of morale and procurement experienced by the Army and Navy airmen were addressed, as was the issue of adequate funding , when Congress authorized five-year procurement plans for military and naval aircraft. Unfortunately, while the authorization existed, the President and Congress, true to their economy-mindedness, never provided the funding to implement these plans. According to a story making the rounds at the time, when faced with request for appropriations to buy additional military aircraft, Coolidge remarked, ”Why can’t they just buy one airplane, and take turns flying it?” While it is likely that this is one of the many remarks attributed to the President that he never made, it illustrates how many in the military aviation community viewed their Commander-in Chief during the late nineteen-twenties.

Neither his supporters nor his detractors have ever properly recognized Coolidge’s role in the creation of the first significant piece of Federal legislation governing aviation. For example, Coolidge’s biographers hardly mention aviation at all, despite the fact that events during his administration decisively shaped the development of aviation in the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Hoover reaps what little credit is given, but it was Coolidge who was responsible for the resolution of an impending stalemate in ways compatible with his political principles and philosophy, and which provided the legislative basis for the development of American commercial aviation. With the able assistance of Dwight Morrow, Coolidge ”stilled the agitation and restored calm.” Indeed even Morrow, who had received so much recognition that he voiced his fear that he would no longer be a member in ”that small group which tries to get things done for which others get the credit,” seemed to overlook the President’s essential role. In his indispensable study of the Air Commerce Act, Beacons to Bonfires, FAA historian Nick Komons states: ”[I]f the Air Commerce Act was enacted in 1926, it was due in large measure to the political skills of Calvin Coolidge. The act itself was perhaps the only genuine legislative achievement of the Coolidge Presidency.”

Under the vigorous direction of the first Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aeronautics, none other than William P. MacCracken, the Aeronautics Branch, and later the Bureau of Air Commerce, made great strides. By funding and coordinating the aviation activities of several Department of Commerce bureaus, the additional bureaucracy and its inherent expense that both Hoover and Coolidge abhored was avoided, but it would not be the ultimate solution. The Aeronautics Branch was a victim of its own success—for it outgrew the very structure that enabled it to get off to a strong start. The limitations of such an arrangement eventually became apparent and left the door open for New Deal reshuffling. The Kelly Bill had given the Post Office Department control over airmail, and the Postmaster of the United States’ legally questionable use of his influence over the award of contracts to favored carriers led to scandal. Finally, the inherent conflict of interest involved in an agency investigating accidents that its own activities may have contributed to would lead to the creation of an independent investigatory body to assume that function. Despite these faults, the passage of the Civil Aeronautics Act gave the United States a viable Federal aviation regulatory authority at long last, the influence of which is still felt in the Federal government’s interrelationship with civil and commercial aviation.

© 6/26/01 Charles F. Downs


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